It’s rare for a company like Nintendo to release a console that isn’t at least popular amongst its fans – even the Wii U sold over 13 million units. But the Virtual Boy was one of the company’s biggest flops, delivering a disappointing 3D experience that left gamers seeing red: literally. Despite its bizarre hardware limitations and embarrassingly small game lineup, I genuinely miss the console that stands as a tribute to the risks Nintendo often takes towards the cause of innovating gaming.
Long before hardware like the Oculus Rift brought decent virtual reality to the masses who can afford a high-end gaming PC, a company called Reflection Technology, Inc. created a new display technology that promised to make wearable VR goggles an affordable reality. A single row of red LEDs and vibrating mirrors were used to create a full-sized video image when viewed by the human eye. The technology was demonstrated in a wearable prototype called the Private Eye that could only produce images in red and black as a result of it exclusively relying on cheaper red LEDs. The company assumed that pricier green and blue LEDs needed for full colour images would drop in price by the time the hardware reached consumers.
After failing to market the technology to some of the biggest toy and electronics makers of the time, the Private Eye was demonstrated to Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi, the man responsible for creating both the Game & Watch handhelds and the Game Boy which are considered to be some of the most innovative and successful products in the history of video games. He was impressed, the company exclusively licensed the technology, and four years later (which included the construction of a dedicated factory) the Nintendo Virtual Boy was released in Japan in 1995... and then discontinued in December of the same year. It had a short release in the US, and never made it to Europe. It was panned by critics and gamers, and managed to sell just 770,000 units before Nintendo abruptly cut its VR experiment short.
A decision to stick with red LEDs only meant the Virtual Boy looked like dated ‘70s-era technology, but at least the 3D effect worked. Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)
Why did it fail? Hoo boy, where to begin? The biggest reason the Virtual Boy was despised by most who played it was the supposedly temporary red and black display technology ended up actually making it into the final product. Nintendo reportedly tested a full colour version of the Virtual Boy during its development, but it made the 3D experience worse, and would have resulted in the console costing over $500, when even $180 (the equivalent of over $300 today) was considered very pricy in 1995. Using red LEDs only also improved and added depth to the 3D effect, and extended the console’s battery life.
For health and safety reasons the Virtual Boy could only be played while it was awkwardly perched on a table. Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)
Like the Oculus Rift and other modern VR systems, the Virtual Boy was also supposed to feature a wearable design with head tracking allowing games to be played through motion controls. This was eventually scrapped to minimise motion sickness and to reduce other potential health risks, including vision impairments, resulting in a VR system that could only be played by leaning forward and looking into the eyepieces while the Virtual Boy was perched on a table. It was awkward at best, although many discovered the console could also be played by resting it on your face while lying in bed.
Adding to the challenges of playing the Virtual Boy was its odd M-shaped controller featuring duelling directional pads that allowed characters to be moved in three dimensions. It also held the console’s battery pack, and the added weight of six AA batteries did nothing to improve the controller’s ergonomics.
Ahead of the Virtual Boy’s official debut, Nintendo only showed the prototypes to a handful of third-party developers which meant that throughout its very short lifespan just 22 games were released for the console. For innovative hardware that absolutely relied on interesting games to justify its existence, it wasn’t anywhere close to being enough to convince gamers to jump on board. There wasn’t even a genuine Super Mario game available for the Virtual Boy. Gamers instead had to get their side-scrolling fix through Wario, which, in hindsight, seems very fitting.
Despite everything the Virtual Boy had working against it, I genuinely enjoyed playing the console. I’ve always had a soft spot for 3D (embracing every IMAX film properly shot in three dimensions) and before the Nintendo 3DS arrived, the Virtual Boy was the only gaming system capable of 3D gameplay. I’ve played Mario Tennis on the Virtual Boy more than any other tennis game on any other console, and I love video game tennis. I thought the 3D effect was great, and still do, and while I admittedly didn’t find all the Virtual Boy games as compelling or addictive, they each still provided a very unique experience you couldn’t get on any other system. I even didn’t mind that all games were only playable in red and black; if anything it made me feel like I was playing on cutting edge hardware waiting for other technologies to catch up.
It probably didn’t hurt that my Virtual Boy was found in the clearance section of a store outside Detroit for around $15, with a handful of games snatched up for just $5 each. Had the teenage version of me scraped and saved over $200 to buy the console and a couple of games on launch day, there’s little doubt I would have had a very different opinion of the hardware, and would have been very upset after Nintendo discontinued it just months later. I won’t even try to refute the critical reviews and general negative opinions of the Virtual Boy. Nintendo, who was spending money developing the N64 at the same time, screwed up when they rushed what was clearly an unfinished and unpolished console to market.
As bad as it was, to me the Virtual Boy still remains a shining example of Nintendo’s commitment to taking risks and bucking industry trends. When graphics and gritty gaming were the driving force behind Microsoft and Sony’s consoles, Nintendo released the Wii whose innovative motion controls and a simple bowling game resulted in lineups at the store months after the console was released. Would the Virtual Boy have been successful if Nintendo hadn’t cut features and limited functionality to get it out the door? I don’t think it would have laid the groundwork for the advanced virtual reality technologies we have today, but I do think it had far more potential than Nintendo realised, and maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t be the only person who misses it.